A beginner’s guide to lean: Lean lessons learned

Now that we have begun a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on lean lessons learned in 2014.


Now that we have begun a new year, it’s a good time to reflect on Lean lessons learned in 2014.

My students conducted six Lean Workouts with various sponsor organizations this year. These organizations ranged from GM to several small manufacturers to our first non-profit organization, the Detroit Historical Society. The student teams and their sponsor organizations learned a lot of Lean lessons.

Four of the key Lean lessons learned were:

1. Be precise and detailed in your observation and analysis of the gemba.

As I tell my students, you’re not tourists strolling through the plant. You are keen observers writing notes and taking pictures so that you can get the most accurate facts possible and uncover waste. One of the student teams that was conducting its Lean Workout on the gauge calibration outsourcing process of a CNC machining company actually walked with the worker and counted the 685 footsteps he made every time he performed the outsourcing process. That is what I call precise observing of the gemba! That level of precise observation facilitated their team’s ability to understand the current condition, identify the root causes and design a target condition that reduced waste from 49 percent of the process to 3 percent.

2. Standardize, standardize, standardize!

Then manage to the standards. As I have written before, “the least sexy part of Lean is standardized work. But standardized work is the linchpin of the Lean system. Where there is no standardized work, there is no process discipline, team member accountability, reliable data, continuous improvement or Lean sustainability. In many instances, the student teams found non-standard processes or, more often, no standards at all. Everyone was doing his or her own thing, and the folks at the end of the process were picking up the pieces and fielding customer complaints. I don’t know what is more important — developing standards or managing people to follow the standards. But I do know that both are critical. I tell the students to only develop standards that the people doing the work can easily understand and agree to follow and the supervisors can and will monitor and enforce. Don’t get ahead of the organization’s culture and employees’ capabilities. There is always the opportunity for future kaizen.

3. Have quality, cost and/or delivery (QCD) problems?

Look at the front end of the process first. In the manufacturing companies the students worked with this fall term, the businesses were experiencing problems with wrong customer shipments, raw material “shortages” and long lead times. Most of the so-called “data” pointed to the plant floor. But after precise and detailed observation and analysis of the current conditions, the student teams discovered the root causes to really be in the front end or the order entry, receiving and initial inspection processes. Their Lean Workouts ultimately focused on eliminating the waste and developing standards in the order entry process, the raw materials receiving process and the initial inspection process — the QCD problems were greatly impacted as a result.

Mark Doman is a professor in Lean studies at Oakland University in the department of organizational leadership. Courtesy: AME

4. Leaders must take the lead in employee communication and training to build buy-in and support for your target condition.

Employee communication and training led by the leaders of the organization are a must for any implementation plan. Just because your team comes up with a great new Lean target condition and absolutely ingenious countermeasures doesn’t mean that the employees doing the work and/or supervising the work and/or running the plant will automatically change their behavior overnight. Changing ingrained adult behavior, let alone longstanding organizational habits, is extremely tough to do. As Dennis Pawley, the Chrysler lean pioneer, told my class, “To really obtain employee buy-in, my experience shows that for every hour leaders initially budget to communicate change, multiply that 10 times to effectively achieve explanation and acceptance of the change.”

I hope these Lean lessons learned help you and your organizations on your Lean journeys. 

Mark Doman is a professor in Lean studies at Oakland University in the department of organizational leadership. He is the author of “A new Lean paradigm in higher education: A case study.” Quality assurance in education, Vol. 19 No. 3, 2011, “How Lean ready are you?” Target, Vol. 28 No. 2, 2012 and “The beginner’s guide to Lean” series. His email address is doman@oakland.edu. This article originally appeared on AME Target Online Magazine, AME is a CFE Media content partner.

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